Seeing red: Unseen images from China's lost decade

The scale of the human tragedy of China's Cultural Revolution is immeasurable. But these extraordinary photographs depict a decade unparalleled in terms of art and imagery
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The Independent Online

There are many monikers attached to Mao Zedong. Mao the supreme leader; Mao the chairman; Mao the messiah; Mao the manipulator; Mao the one-time acceptable face of communist tyranny. By contrast, his balding pate was rendered in propaganda images with little variation. In badges, posters, paintings, wood carvings: the same half-smile, the sagging throat, the splash of red.

Unlike the Great Wall of China, Mao's chief legacy does not curve over hillsides or tower into the sky. The fear in people's eyes, the manipulation of history, ancient philosophy making way for political posturing – these things are not measurable. Estimates of deaths under his rule vary widely but even the most conservative soar into the tens of millions. And for his 10-year curtain call prior to his 1976 demise, Mao set about reorganising Chinese culture, annihilating, then re-building, a state from scratch. This "Cultural Revolution" saw public properties and cultural relics razed; religious architecture, frescoes, books and statues scorched; intellectuals and "counter-revolutionary" bourgeoisie persecuted. Meanwhile, Mao's all-seeing eye looked down, as reproduced in millions of posters and billions of pin badges. While condemning capitalism with one hand and embracing its mass reproduction techniques with the other, the Chairman made sure no home, school or workplace was free from his perennial gaze.

The face of Chinese communism may have changed, but Mao's features have become an unshakable part of the cultural landscape. From Andy Warhol's 1972 silk-screen portrait of Mao to the thousands of pieces of Cultural Revolution memorabilia now trading hands on the internet, the demagogue eventually won a place in the West's art history textbooks. Much of this arrived in this one historical period. A forthcoming publication, by the Birmingham-based academic Jiang Jiehong, called Red: China's Cultural Revolution, features previously-unseen reportage and hyper-real political pictures from the time. Such photographs, often taken in extremely trying circumstances, go some way to explain how the Cultural Revolution came to pass, and how its chief perpetrator cast such a long shadow over so many for so long.

"You look at a picture of Britain 30 years ago, and relatively speaking, it's not that different," says Jiehong. "But photographs taken during the Cultural Revolution seem like they're taken in a completely different world. That revolution proceeded like a tidal wave. You couldn't get away from its effects even if you tried. Whether you thought its repercussions were good or bad: this was not as important to me as how it was portrayed through the widespread employment of visuals and colour."

And what visuals. Black-and-white shots of teenage students holding Mao's writings aloft; Tibetan children shuffling through the pages of the chairman's Little Red Book of quotations; photographs of Party members smashing a Catholic church or pulling down a temple dedicated to Confucius; state-sanctioned plays and demonstrations. Then, the many portraits of Mao, often afloat on background seas of red. Whether walking to galvanise workforces, or addressing thousands at Tiananmen Square, his veneration is rendered absolute. People wore a total of two billion pin badges in 10,000 different designs to exhibit their allegiance (the bigger, the better). Children traded them as a kind of currency.

"China was, and still is, a society with hundreds of thousands of poor people," says Jiehong. "Less educated people find it easier to read images rather than textual materials. While intellectuals may appreciate the calligraphy for which Mao was initially known, most would prefer to deal in pictures." According to Jiehong, Mao was the first Chinese leader to use his portrait as a wholesale means of control; traditional Chinese culture previously frowned upon the practice.

The Cultural Revolution followed Mao's "Great Leap Forward", between 1958 and 1961, an attempt to catalyse industrial output through forced labour. Despite killing an estimated 20 million people, the Chairman still felt his society's socialist ideals were lacking. In May 1966, a Chinese Communist Party (CCP) official in Beijing University's philosophy department criticised the "bureaucratic, counter-revolutionary" nature of the university's administration. The message spread. Soon, senior Party members were designating squads of students as "Red Guards", "the front line of the new revolutionary upheaval". Everyone became a target. According to the official history of the period assembled by Stanford University's Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies: "To the youth of the day, the Cultural Revolution represented a release from all their shackles, frustrations, and feelings of powerlessness."

Jiehong argues that the widespread use of red had less to do with socialist precedents in Europe and Russia than Chinese culture's status quo. Around 25,000 years ago, palaeolithic Chinese man rouged up animal teeth, bones and shells to make them more visually appealing.

"Red was not something imported from the West," argues the author. "It was a spiritual, long-standing element within our society. I'd call its employment by Russian communists and French revolutionaries a coincidence. Traditional marriages used a lot of red. When I passed my exams at university I was given a red certificate. In effect, Mao manipulated the colour's existing use to make it embody a sense of revolution."

Memories are tinted by people's age at the time. Jiehong, born in Shanghai in 1971, was just five when Mao died. He remembers growing up around grey. "Like other people on the streets, my mother always wore a faded grey coat," he writes. "I could always see the tiredness, even in their smiles, like the signs of a low mood after excessive excitement." At school he recalls drawing a shining red sun, Mao's symbol, and praying his work would appear on a red board (the equivalent of winning a gold star). He speaks of Mao's almost "divine image", how it was impossible to avoid his gaze, how children could never imagine him indulging in life's day-to-day demands and responsibilities.

"Many of the older people I've met recall the time as a period when they were personally humiliated and beaten and even worse," he continues. "But for the younger people, it often had a carnival-like atmosphere. You don't have to go to school, you don't have to finish your homework. You get to go to parades."

When Mao died on 9 September 1976, Hua Gofeng, the CCP's second-in-command, arrested the four remaining Cultural Revolution leaders, the so-called "Gang of Four" – Mao's last wife, Jiang Qing, and her close associates, Zhang Chunqiao, Yao Wenyuan and Wang Hongwen. Their incarceration on 6 October marked the Revolution's official end; they became convenient scapegoats for the period's worst excesses. Those extremes can be seen today; or rather they can't be seen. They persist in the absence of memories and the people who didn't survive.

"It's such a shame that to go to Beijing these days is not to see an ancient city, but something dynamic and changing with no reference to the past," concludes the author. "Now, we do not refurbish an old building, we replace it ... It creates a different environment for life."

'Red: China's Cultural Revolution' by Jiang Jiehong (Jonathan Cape, £35) is published on 9 September